Monday, January 02, 2006

Jews of Kurdistan, 55 years on

As Israeli Jews contemplate visiting the region (see below), in the Spring 2005 issue of the Yale Israel Journal, Josh Goodman takes a penetrating look at the Jews of Kurdistan, caught between tradition and modernity. The Jews were almost all relocated to Israel in the mass aliyah of 1950 - 51, but retain an affection for the land of their birth.

"As the Kurdish Jews were assimilating and advancing in Israeli society in the 1960s and 1970s, an alliance developed between the state of Israel and the Kurds in Iraq. During this period, Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, along with the CIA and the Iranian Shah’s special operatives, were engaged in operations in Kurdistan to aid the forces of “Mullah” Mustafa Barzani. Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, was fighting for Kurdish autonomy from the Iraqi central government. According to Eliezer Tsafrir, who led Mossad operations in Iran and Kurdistan during the 1970s, Israel managed to spirit a few thousand remaining Iraqi Jews out of Iraq to Israel through Kurdistan with Barzani’s help. While Tsafrir himself is partly of Kurdish origin, he claims that there were few other Kurdish Jews involved in the Israeli operations in Kurdistan, and that the Mossad did not make any effort to recruit them as operatives."

"Israel’s aid to the Kurds fits in with a general pattern of trying to establish alliances with non-Arab groups in the region, but the operations in the 1970s were also specifically designed to support Iran—at the time, Israel’s main Middle Eastern ally and chief supplier of oil—and to keep the Iraqi military busy. Israeli aid to the Kurds was terminated in 1975 following the rapprochement between the Shah and Saddam Hussein at the Algiers OPEC Conference.

Between Two Homelands

"Despite having spent most of their lives in Israel, many Kurdish Israelis maintain a high level of identification with their native Kurdistan, the Muslim Kurds, and Kurdish national aspirations. Many firmly believe in the need for an independent Kurdish state, a goal for which many Kurds have been striving since the end of the Ottoman Empire and which Arab nationalists have often denigrated as a potential “second Israel.” Kurdish Jews themselves draw parallels between the historical struggles of the ethnic Kurds and the Jews. Making a comparison between Kurdish suffering and the Jewish Holocaust, Efraim commented that “Saddam [Hussein] did to [the Kurds] what the Jews got in Germany, but in a lesser magnitude.”

"Surprisingly, some of the Kurdish Israelis I encountered had traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan recently. Travel to the region became practical for Israelis only after the establishment of Iraqi Kurdish autonomy under the aegis of the American no-fly zone following the 1991 Gulf War. One Kurdish Israeli, who visited Kurdistan during the 1990s, describes how he and his spouse were received by the Kurds."

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